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Should I pursue telework?

10 min. 
August 6, 2020
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Should I pursue telework?

Entering the pandemic, working from home was rare in Canada compared to other countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Most employers were averse to this work format and would only allow it occasionally, fearing that when the cat’s away, the mice will play. When COVID-19 hit, employers had little choice but to react quickly. Though forced into adopting telework temporarily, there could be significant advantages for your business. The reasoning and advice that follows will help you to manage this new reality effectively.

The Benefits
True, remote work has gained in popularity due to the evolution of technology and mindsets. However, to limit the spread of the coronavirus, it became the norm practically overnight. Approximately 40% of Canadians are working in slippers from the comfort of their homes, which is four times more than before the health crisis.

This sudden radical transformation of the job market is allowing Tania Saba, a professor at the University of Montreal’s School of Industrial Relations, to study the impact of a digital work environment. With a few researcher colleagues, she has been surveying teleworkers and states the following: “Until now, 37% of those surveyed experienced a hike in productivity, even if their workload increased because of the pandemic.”

According to Diane-Gabrielle Tremblay, professor at TÉLUQ’s School of Administrative Sciences, this is not surprising. “Teleworkers are more focused away from their coworkers, because collaborative spaces, which are the rage at the moment, bring their share of noise and distractions,” she explains. No more small talk in the hallway between two meetings.

No, working from home does not mean drinking coffee while watching Casa del papel on Netflix. On the contrary, many are drawn to their email as they get out of bed, eat lunch riveted to a screen, and have a hard time to disconnect. Professional life slyly insinuates itself into personal life when both occupy the same space.

Nonetheless, the daily rat race consisting of commute-work-sleep is a thing of the past. The time spent travelling to and from work is now spent under the covers, jogging, taking care of the kids, watching TV or learning. If workers are more efficient in the comfort of their homes, it’s that they are less stressed, more fit, with a richer personal life, especially when they are not under the obligation of submitting to confinement rules.

Generally, home-based workers are grateful for the flexibility granted to them by their employer. They feel respected, that their well-being is taken into consideration, both of which reinforce loyalty. Why would they leave a job where they are getting good results, that leaves them time to for leisure, health, and family? In the end, job relocation could lower SME turnover and reduce the efforts and expenses linked to recruiting and training.

Human resources specialist Diane-Gabrielle Tremblay believes that working from home is an incentive that has been ignored by SMEs for too long. She says, “Small businesses do not have the means to offer higher salaries. What they can offer, however, is flexibility and a better quality of life: a four-day week, a flexible schedule, or telework.”

A survey conducted in April by the Léger firm indicated that 79% of Canadians were taking a liking to their virtual experience. Tania Saba’s study revealed for its part that 52% were hoping not to return to the office, a proportion that has increased since the beginning of the crisis.

Satisfaction grows over time, as businesses adapt to this new reality, little by little. Telework that was rushed and improvised at first has made way for well-established processes and effective tools to make accomplishing tasks more agreeable. In SMEs especially, where the lack of resources is more present, COVID-19 favours innovation. This is another of Tania Saba’s conclusions: “Employees admitted looking for solutions to simplify communications and project management. They are testing free software, taking online courses, asking friends and colleagues for advice,” she explains.

Increased productivity, retention, attractiveness, innovation, are all reasons pointing to e-work as a good idea. But how can it be managed intelligently? Here are a few of our tips as well as some tricks from the experts interviewed.

Abandon your old reflexes
In the SME sector, management by sight is the norm. To know how a project is going, owners and managers keep an eye on their team, hovering around workstations in a quest for an informal and impromptu update. With telework, it is important not to replicate this way of doing things with endless emails and meetings, which could make your personnel feel pressured or micromanaged.

It is better to favour guidance and support, while setting clear, detailed, and realistic objectives as well as reasonable deadlines. Clearly state your expectations and the tasks to accomplish. Put in place processes to receive updates and feedback, such as a weekly meeting. Trust your employees and encourage autonomy.

If you have managers to share the load, says Diane-Gabrielle Tremblay, make sure that they feel comfortable in their position of oversight without a bird’s-eye view of everyone. “Often, senior management is averse to the idea of their team being dispersed,” she mentions, “They feel disrupted in their habits, which causes them to have a negative attitude toward the workers.” Heighten awareness of the importance of being up to date in current management practices and provide training if needed.

Be flexible and unify your team
The president of Télétravail Québec (an organization that promotes telework in the province of Québec) discourages working from home on a full-time basis. Speaking for his association, which promotes good telework practices, José Lemay-Leclerc recommends a weekly presence to favour collaboration and reduce the risk of isolation, an obstacle to productivity. An effective retention strategy seems to be allowing employees to choose the time slot of their weekly visit. Be accommodating to your workers juggling with family responsibilities.

“The key is finding work-life balance.”

– José Lemay-Leclerc, president of Télétravail Québec

If you have opted for full-time remote work for everyone in order to save in rent and other fees, leave room in your budget to rent a space once a month. Bring everyone together so that your team is close-knit.

Studies have shown that combined with occasional reunions, working from home can promote cohesion, especially within SMEs. Each one is more likely to witness the decisions, changes, and orientations of the business, because they are shared via email. Take care to keep your troops informed.

The feeling of being left out of the decision-making process or of going unnoticed by management is a stumbling block to efficiency. Make sure that everyone has a global view of the work accomplished by their peers and of the organization’s successes.

Humanize communication
To strengthen the rapport between team members and bring a touch of warmth to the exchanges, it is important to reproduce informal coffee break moments. Propose an online breakfast, lunch, or happy hour in small groups so that participants can express themselves freely. Add a personal touch by inviting your employees to introduce their kids, their pets, or the decor behind the camera.

Organize contests for the best homemade mask or hand sanitizer recipe. Start a reading club and exchange books by mail. To encourage learning, elaborate a quiz regarding your services, products, and clients or on the history of your SME and profession. Why not start a mentoring program? If you have the time, redouble the efforts and plan webinars.

Show an interest in the well-being of your workers and encourage them, for example, to take walks to eventually complete a marathon collectively. Invite everyone to online dance, fitness, or yoga classes; YouTube overflows with classes that are interesting and free of charge.

Integration first, telework next
Diane-Gabrielle Tremblay mentions that it is better to wait for an employee to be properly integrated before offering the possibility of working from home. She recommends six months to a year to gain important knowledge via spontaneous encounters with colleagues and managers, in front of the microwave or in hallways. This allows them to create ties with the company and assimilate its values.

A progressive approach can also be beneficial, authorizing your new hires to work from home on Fridays, then Thursdays, and finally according to your SME’s standards. In this way, if they are not comfortable with technology, this gives you the time to offer training. The integration period also allows you to get to know your recruits, their changes in behaviour when under psychological unease.

It is more difficult to perceive variations in concentration and motivation remotely. Be perceptive, observe the facial expressions on your screen. If your operations are solely digital, make supporting your new team member a priority by scheduling a few meetings weekly.

Successful telework is highly linked to using and mastering tools that are at the cutting edge of technology. To set yourself apart, your equipment, software, and IT infrastructure should be user-friendly, high-performance, and secure, and your employees should be provided quality training to make the most of these tools.

But who will pay the bill? The pandemic is weighing heavily on Canadian employers, many of whom have had to close or put in place social distancing measures that hinder productivity. The average debt for SMEs would be as high as $150,000, according to a survey by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) published at the beginning of June. And the federal support measures, such as the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) or the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA), are barely enough to cover rent and utilities. According to the CFIB, additional resources will eventually be required medium and long term to cover the infrastructures needed for virtual work.

As spokesperson for this organization that advocates the needs of entrepreneurs, Gopinath Jeyabalaratnam says regretfully, “Even if we grant millions of dollars right away, these amounts will only be used to pay off debt.”

Subsidies, income tax credits, financing for training in connection with telework will be needed. But that is not all. Some are willing to invest time and part of their budget toward digital conversion, but do not have the required cellular network or high-speed internet. “For telework or e-business to be possible, this Canada-wide problem, which concerns even areas close to large cities, needs to be tackled head on by our leaders,” states Mr. Jeyabalaratnam.

“We are appealing to decision makers for a two-stage SME support program for the longer term. First, we must provide these businesses with the liquidity needed to survive. Once heads are above water, we can think of how to help them modernize by guaranteeing 4G access and offering financing.”

– Gopinath Jeyabalaratnam, spokesperson for the CFIB

In the province of Québec, the Legault government announced in May, an envelope of 150 M$ to implement telecommunications infrastructures in areas that are less serviced. Thanks to the “Régions branchées” project, 70,000 homes should be browsing on a high bandwidth network by 2022.

In any event, the impact of the confinement measures on the economy would have been reduced if Canadian organizations had begun digital transformation before the health crisis. We only need to think of hair salon owners who took advantage of their e-commerce platforms to become personalized hair care distributors or of architect associates who had previously invested in high-performance project management software.

Some positive has come out of COVID-19: it has accelerated the modernization of our country’s businesses, reminding us of the urgency to exploit new technologies. We will see if this momentum will weaken with the virus.

The answer

Should I pursue telework? Yes. Research shows that telework contributes to employee productivity, creativity, well-being and loyalty. Experts advise to offer it as a part-time option, giving your members the freedom of managing their schedules. Survey your team, take a look at how things are going, and take inspiration from good practices, by adopting for example, a mentoring strategy or by humanizing your interactions.